Marcel and his aging grandmother undergo a quest for connection after a sudden separation from their community of shell peers in Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Ironically enough, Marcel himself is experiencing a similarly momentous journey from his 2010 short film origins to a feature-length debut. The adorable short film and its respective sequels represented a passion project from writer/director Dean Fleischer-Camp and star Jenny Slate.
The series also became an internet phenomenon, with early YouTube audiences falling in love with Marcel for his wistful worldview and distinctly sleight stature. Fleischer-Camp and Slate are now collaborating a decade later for Marcel’s big screen treatment, and while the final product comes with some blemishes, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On ultimately radiates feel-good sincerity where it counts most.
As a kids film with backing from indie darling A24, Marcel thankfully ignores the aggressive bombast of most modern family outings. Fleischer-Camp instead adheres to a low-steaks approach reminiscent of Marcel’s gentle personality. At its best, the project registers its most affecting tugs at the heartstrings through its sleight yet impactful revelations on family, community, mortality, and discovering one’s voice.
Fleischer-Camp’s humanistic visual eye and the upbeat score by Disasterpeace also capture an environment glowing with whimsy and life under its ordinary home setting. I give Marcel the Shell with Shoes On props for reenvisioning a familiar environment into a playful sandbox brimming with possibilities. These choices allow viewers to get lost inside Marcel’s wide-eyed perspective.
Marcel himself becomes a wonderfully distinct character thanks to Jenny Slate’s expressive voice-over performance. Slate conjures an infectious cadence to draw viewers in, but her performance is by no means a gimmick. Under her affable delivery, Slate unearths Marcel’s insular struggles with a deft emotional touch.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On ranks as one of the year’s early critical darlings. Unfortunately, aspects of the film’s execution squandered some of its dramatic potential for me. I understand why Fleischer-Camp, Elisabeth Holm, and Nick Paley opted for a faux-documentary approach with their screenplay. The framing device attempts to reflect on Fleischer-Camp’s connection to Marcel’s real-life journey in the zeitgeist while also mirroring his character stand-in Dean with Marcel’s journey of self-discovery.
I found the documentary approach to be an unwarranted distraction. The way Fleischer-Camp acts off of Marcel only works to cheapen some of the film’s charms as the writer/director/co-star serves as a needless audience cipher. At other points, the format awkwardly overexplains plot developments and thematic ideas with unsatisfying results. I wish the film trusted the strength of its more subdued moments versus uneven attempts at crowdpleasing.
Critiques aside, I am not heartless to Marcel’s undeniable charms. Marcel the Shells with Shoes On still drew me into its endless positivity despite some inconsistencies. I am happy to see a niche indie film of this nature find an agreeable wider audience.
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing in theaters.
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